William Eaton, Zeteo Editorial Adviser
[One in an ongoing series of posts. For the full series see Zeteo is Reading.]
3 March 2013
A reader on vacation—shouldn’t he be on vacation from reading, too? Before I headed off on my most recent not-quite-vacation, with half a dozen “serious” books and a Kindle, I read a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It concerned “the insidious impact of new communication technologies on living and learning in another culture.” I appreciated that the author’s observations could be quite easily adapted to describe contemporary vacationers with their bikinis (or trunks) and their cellphones, and also to describe we (endangered?) readers of so-called serious books. The thickness of the latter helps, as a cellphone can, block the confusion and anxiety of having nothing to do.
See Pascal: « Quand un soldat se plaint de la peine qu’il a, ou un laboureur, etc., qu’on les mette sans rien faire. » When a soldier, worker, etc., starts complaining, assign him the task of doing nothing. See, too, “How Facebook Can Ruin Study Abroad,” by Robert Huesca, a professor of communication at Trinity University, in San Antonio.
When I studied in Mexico City in 1980 telephone access was neither easy nor inexpensive nor of good quality. Attempts to call home were infrequent, costly, and often unsuccessful, which led to feelings of isolation and vulnerability. As a consequence, the intensity and duration of “culture shock” were pronounced. . . .
Some study-abroad administrators and programmers might consider that obviation of culture shock an improvement in international education. Indeed, one of the largest American program providers markets itself with the unfortunate slogan of “more culture, less shock.”
Although stressful and, frankly, painful at the time, the periods of intense loneliness and homesickness I experienced in Mexico City contributed significantly to core and treasured sensibilities such as empathy, tolerance, perseverance, perspective, and gratitude. In the rush to protect our students and our universities through the adoption of digital technologies, we unwittingly have extinguished the necessary conditions for personal transformation that justify the expense, risk, and sacrifice of study abroad.
4 March 2013
Headed south out of JFK on the usual Cattle Airlines, my son falling asleep with his head on my lap, I first turned for obviation to Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. I confess I found myself more curious about why, in the mid-1960s, the novel had been so well received than I was about the story or the writing itself. But I did like some of the descriptions of Southern California:
San Narciso lay further south, near L.A. Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts—census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway. . . . She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.
Amid the palms, sea air and soothing temperatures of a part of the Caribbean annexed by the US military, I read William Hogeland’s Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation(University of Texas Press, 2012). Among other things, Hogeland picks up on historian Carl Becker’s idea of there having been two American revolutions: one over “home rule,” and the other over “who should rule at home.” (I.e., the wealthy creditors, landholders and merchants or the masses of tenant farmers, laborers and craftspeople?) Among the eye openers were figures on the compensation paid to those who served in the revolutionary army. I quote:
The officers agreed to take their payoff in interest-bearing federal bonds, to be funded after final settlement of states’ accounts with Congress. Each general received $10,000 worth of bonds. Average family income at the time was under $200 per year. The founding American military officer class suddenly became wealthy gentlemen . . .
Average household income in the US is currently about $50,000/year, so receiving $10,000 in bonds in the late eighteenth century would be something like receiving $2.5 million in the early twenty-first. As for the soldiers:
The men got $200-300 in bonds. This was just a stopgap side deal, made at the officers’ behest. Addressing real back pay for the men was put off until the final settlement among the states and Congress. That ended up meaning never.
The bonds weren’t what the soldiers needed. They had no way of waiting for interest or payment on federal debt instruments; they needed immediate cash. They sold their bonds to speculators at deep discounts on face value. When Pennsylvania troops rebelled over nonpayment, the officers were far from supportive; the rebellion was put down. Officers were bondholders of high standing now. Their sympathy with the men had ended.
(Hogeland’s key source here seems to be James E. Ferguson, The Power Of The Purse: A History Of American Public Finance, 1776-1790 (University of North Carolina Press, 1961).)
6 March 2013
In 5+ decades of life I have proved quite resistant to television advertising for those sorts of miraculous products that can do everything for only $29.99 or $199.99. Peel, slice and fry your potatoes with just the push of a button. Tone all your muscles in just five minutes a day. I confess that I have, however, occasionally given in to what I consider a related temptation: books that promise to give you, the layperson, a tour of sophisticated scientific or mathematical ideas in the space of just one book. My experience is that, like the potato machine, such books have a tendency to disappoint, and this because, like the potato machine, they are trying to do something that cannot be done, or not well. But this does not stop me, every few years or so, from ponying up the $15.84 + shipping, it was this year, for Steven Strogatz’s The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity. I will not write (much) of my discontents (the ultimate empitness of the reader), but of my favorite moment, when Strogratz wrote about the infinite sum 1-1+1-1+1-1+ . . . With the help of parentheses we can see that this infinite series adds up to 0. I.e.: (1-1)+(1-1) . . . And by shifting the parentheses we can see that it adds up to 1. I.e.: 1+(-1+1)+(-1+1) . . . This allows Strogatz, after the eighteenth century mathematician and priest Guido Grandi, to suggest that something can indeed come from nothing. It is, we can say, just a matter of moving the parentheses. (Therein, I suppose, lies another potentially bank-account-lightning book: Who Moved My Parentheses? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Universe and Your View of God. Stay tuned.)
Zeteo contributor Catherine Vigier, married to a French psychiatric nurse, recommended to me the work of the Armenian-French psychiatrist Edouard Zarifian (1941-2007; picture at right). I took his Les Jardiniers de la folie south with me. It might be said that Zarifian’s approach is warm and human in the best sense of this word (for all we may be losing touch with this sense?). These qualities are shown in these extracts from the concluding chapter, here in my gloss (to include of Vian’s comment):
Psychology—and psychoanalysis in particular—is the method of choice if one wishes to understand someone, which is to say to help him or her. It is indeed a matter of understanding, of communication, and not of explanation. Explanations will be lost on a person who is suffering, but he has such need of being understood.
And, the very last lines of the book:
Each psychiatrist should take to heart the comment of Boris Vian in L’Ecume des Jours: “What interests me is not the happiness of human beings as a whole, but that of each one.”
(Vian’s novel, the title of which has been variously translated as Froth on the Daydream and Foam of the Daze, tells the story of a man who marries a woman who develops an illness that can only be treated by surrounding her with flowers.)
9 March 2013
Last but not least, Alfred Kinsey, an excellent biography by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy: Kinsey: A Biography (which I suspect was also published with the title Sex the Measure of All Things: A Life of Alfred C. Kinsey). I only marked about 100 places in the book for further reference, one of these being the news that in his youth, in 1923, Kinsey was the Program Director at the summer camp my son goes to. Summer camping not entirely withstanding, certainly Kinsey, with his approach to sex, played a significant and welcome role in allowing my post-penicilin, post-Pill and pre-AIDS generation to enjoy sex. I was also interested in an economic statistic that appeared at the very bottom of page 399 of the biography: “By early 1956, 13 million teenagers in America had a total income of $7 billion a year, a disposable income of $10.55 a week each—the same as the average US family in 1940.” Oh, to have been young in that charmed time, and not to have realized how charmed it was.